Friday, June 19, 2009

On the Edge of Success

Thanks to Krystian Majewski and Erik Hanson, I have plenty of homework to do before I put out the third official part of my series on game difficulty (you can check out part 1 and part 2 here). In the meantime, I thought I would post a sort of "appendix" or case study about how to approach a specific game's difficulty.

A while ago, I stumbled upon Ben Abraham's "How to Kill People More Effectively in Far Cry 2," a post in which he outlines five ways to prevent yourself from dying time and again in Far Cry 2. I feel that Mirror's Edge and Far Cry 2 are in some ways kindred spirits: people want to like them, but certain characteristics give rise to frustration and disappointment which serve to mar the overall experience. I enjoyed Mirror's Edge quite a bit, but the enjoyment came after employing five major techniques that alleviated the trouble I was having with the punishing gameplay. So, without further ado, I present: "On the Edge of Success!"

1. Walls are your friends

Judging distances in the platforming segments can be a bit tricky, as it is difficult to tell just how far some gaps are. To alleviate the pressure of timing your jump perfectly, make use of the walls liberally. Wall runs can save you if you accidentally jump to early, as your momentum can carry you far enough to close the gap on a botched leap. Additionally, wall runs can in combination with ending the run with a jump can give you a little extra altitude when trying to reach a high ledge or poll. Faith is a nimble character, so do not settle on the ground as the only thing to put your feet on.

2. "One at a time, Faith"

Sometimes, you simply will not be able to avoid an enemy confrontation. Whether it is a scripted event or the AI has simply blocked off an escape route, fighting is sometimes necessary. At multiple points in the game, your navigator sidekick,Merc, cautions you to fight each enemy as an individual.

Rather than trying to "Rambo" your way out of a situation, take his advice. Even if you charge into a group of guards and use your slow-down "bullet-time" reaction trick, this will only neutralize one guard. The other two will start wailing on you, and you will not make it out alive. Instead, you must prevent the enemies from clumping together by leading them on a chase. Circle around obstacles, slide underneath them, or dart around a corner to draw a straggler away from the group. In this way, you can neutralize each guard while gaining enough momentum to refill your slow-down move in the process.

3. Strafe for your life!

"But what if the guards won't move?" you ask. That is where strafing comes in.

In video game parlance, "strafing" has become synonymous with "moving sideways." A more traditional definition is an offensive maneuver that seeks to inflict damage on an opponent through a series of attack runs. Faith's major advantage over the guards is her superior speed, so you must use this during battles. If an enemy refuses to move or separate from a group, target them, land a couple of attacks making sure not to dally too long in the fray, and then circle around for another run.

You might not even successfully incapacitate a guard on the first run-through, but you will be able to inflict damage without incurring any yourself. Remember, the guards want you to stand still: they are physically stronger than you and a stationary target is an easy one to shoot. Do not play the game by their rules. Think of the fights in Mirror's Edge like the plane scene in North by Northwest; you are the plane and the guards are Cary Grant, but this time, there ain't no corn to hide in.

4. People don't kill people, guns kill people

Here is where things will get controversial. Simply put, guns are a great way to solve an enemy confrontation. They are quick and deadly, and when used, drastically increase your chance of surviving an encounter with multiple enemies. The trick is being able to get over any moral compunction caused by using them.

I can not tell you how to quiet your guilt, but I will offer a couple of suggestions. First, while much has been made of the possibility of completing the game without firing a shot, remember that it is only one possible way of playing the game. In fact, completing the game without firing a shot is an unlockable achievement, which suggests it is an additional challenge rather than a core requirement. Try doing a stage and using a gun, and then re-play it without one in order wean yourself off firearms.

Second, you can utilize the narrative to justify gun use. At one point in the game, government forces locate and kill Faith's friend. This becomes a turning point in the story and in Faith's character arc, as the government forces have literally drawn first blood. Would it not be completely understandable to assume that Faith would, at this point, take the proverbial gloves off and start shooting to kill? In fact, during one of the later cut scenes, she uses a gun to trigger an explosion, suggesting that she is resigned to the idea that some of her opponents may die as she continues her quest.

Regardless of how you want to justify it, not using guns is a challenge, one that is not unique to Mirror's Edge. For example, in every single Metal Gear Solid game, it is theoretically possible to complete the game without killing any soldiers. However, "possible" does not suggest it is mandatory or even likely. Ultimately, you must decide how important the use or disuse of guns is to your conception of game's narrative. I played through the game both with and without the use of guns, and I enjoyed the novelty of both styles.

5. Take Authorial Control

Continuing down the road of controversy and subjectivity, we come to the issue of the game's narrative. While it may not be one of the great historical works of storytelling, Mirror's Edge contains a very linear, focused plot. The story of Faith's journey to rescue her sister and undermine a tyrannical government can seem understandably disjointed and halting if you must replay certain sections of the game ten times in a row before succeeding. Being frustrating by the narrative juxtaposition of catching the "flow" of free running in one scene and then being subjected to a perceived trial-and-error sequence in the next is understandable.

So how do you relieve the frustration of repeated failure? My solution was to decrease the importance of the narrative in terms of evaluating my enjoyment of the game. The story of a corrupt government trying to stamp out free thinkers is not exactly new, so I shifted my focus and instead began analyzing the stages as puzzles. This made the game a series of skill challenges, resistant to the effects of discontinuity that hamper a plot. By doing this, mistimed jumps became setbacks rather than narrative apocrypha, and enemies became obstacles rather than characters that required integration with the story.

Repeated restarts initially made the game feel broken, but I realized I was trying to fix something that was immutable: I could not "take back" that unfortunate encounter with barbed wire within the context of any story, since clearly Faith's story does not end with her getting her pants snagged on a razor. However, I easily "fix" the problem of not solving a "puzzle" by improving my skills, experimenting, and learning from my mistakes. Both scenarios result in the same outcome: I get to the other side of the fence. By looking at my failure like a challenging puzzle rather than an aborted plot point, I was able to retain my patience and enjoyment while playing.

I am fully aware that this mindset raises interesting philosophical questions in regards to game analysis. Essentially, the problem is whether we analyze a game based on what is given to us (drawing on some sense of authorial intent), or whether we evaluate games based on what we can do with the content (regardless or despite authorial intent). Can a game overcome flaws based on the way gamers play it?

I will not say that there is one standard we should follow, but I will argue we must address this distinction when analyzing games, especially games that challenge players to create their own meaning, or those that contain a myriad of ways to play. Is calling The Sims boring a commentary on the game or a reflection on the player? How do we take in to account Red vs. Blue or Grifball when evaluating Halo?

We should not excuse games with inane stories or sloppy mechanics, but it is necessary to ascertain just how and what we are evaluating when it comes to determining a title's capacity for fun and difficulty. When games like Mirror's Edge or Far Cry 2 challenge us, it is only fair to question how much of the challenge is fed by our expectations, and to explore the role our perception plays in the gaming experience. This is a lot to take in, and the subjectivity inherent in gaming experiences makes the concept of difficulty amazingly abstract, so I am interested to hear other thoughts on the matter.

Regardless of how you feel, just remember to keep strafing: seriously, it works.


  1. Being a scion of a large military family and somewhat of an enthusiast myself, it is so glorious to hear someone else from the gaming world to rediscover what strafe could, and actually should mean.

    In regards to the philosophical questions raised by the trial-and-error aspects of some game in light of their narrative, I must confess that I had never really given it much thought. I always sort of chalked it up to my own ineptitude. Do you think games that employ a reactive AI could potentially alleviate this disconnect? Should more games seek to reconcile the edges between the narrative and the gameplay?

    I can't wait to take a crack at this game too. Oh man am I going to fail this last semester from couch parade.

  2. I thought you might appreciate the strafing tip ;-).

    I don't know that I'd support making the AI react to scale a game's difficulty. If the game was only ever as difficult as the player's current skill, how could the player ever get better? It's a tricky question, for sure.